Hitting un-mute: let’s talk about the impact of abusive teaching evaluations

Britta WiggintonThis blog post is written by guest blogger, Britta Wigginton. In an increasingly neo-liberalised university system, which relies on student satisfaction to generate profit, there are real concerns about the emphasis that is put on student evaluations, and what this means for teaching practices. In increased environments of sessional teaching and (usually unpaid) ‘guest’ lecturing, as well as a push for TED-talk-esque teaching styles and the use of latest teaching styles (such as the flipped classroom), teaching feels as if ‘effective’ teaching now requires a degree in performance arts! In this post, Britta reflects on the experience of being the target of student evaluations, and whether the expectations that are put on academics for ‘teaching excellence’ is actually reasonable. This is sure to be a topic that is close to the hearts and experience of many ISCHP members – feel free to share your stories and perspectives in the comments.

Dr Wigginton is a Lecturer in Health Promotion at the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland. You can follow Britta’s research on Twitter, ResearchGate and through UQ.edu.au.
Image credit: deathbulge.com

It has taken me a while to gather the courage to write and publish this blog, and ultimately to discuss something that feels raw and anxiety provoking. I lean on my fellow feminist academics who talk back to the academy, and from there attempt to write from a place of strength.

Rosalind Gill (2015) talks about the hidden injuries of the neoliberal university. She unearths feelings of exhaustion, stress, anxiety, shame, anger and feelings of fraudulence – all of which, she argues, remain secret in the public spaces of the academy. I want to use this blog to un-mute a particular topic, one that I have been tempted to stay silent on: abusive teaching evaluations.

Semester after semester, we as lecturers and tutors are evaluated by our students. Some of the questions students are asked include:

Is she approachable?

Does she inspire your learning?

Is she well prepared?

Does she encourage student input?

While student feedback, if constructive and relevant, can serve to improve our teaching practices, this process and the data it produces can be highly problematic and unhelpful for us as teachers. I would like to share my story on this topic – without over-indulging in my own personal experience for too long, or as Gill (2009) describes “having a good moan”, which is only hearable as a ‘moan’:

I developed and ran an applied health course for two years in a row. The first year, just less than half the content explored health from a rather uncritical perspective. Following encouraging teaching evaluations, along with recognition School-wide for ranking as one of the highest scoring Lecturers for that semester, I decided to up the ante in critical content. This meant that the second time I ran the course I introduced critical perspectives much earlier and then used the rest of the course to ‘demonstrate’ a critical approach. I found it a great privilege (and joy!) to be teaching this content, particularly in a school with little critical content. I also wanted to impart ways of thinking that I so craved during my undergraduate program. So, when I opened my evaluations the second time around, I didn’t expect my teaching evaluations to be littered with abusive commentary about how I had designed or taught the course.

By chance, days later at an internal staff event, I met a male lecturer who teaches politics and feminism. Bravely, I asked if he’d ever received backlash in his teaching evaluations, to which he responded: “No, because I’m a man”.

So wait a second… my course was critiqued for being “unscientific”, “lacking credibility”, and offering me a platform from which to spout my political “opinions”. No one mentioned my positioning as a young, (cis)woman. But of course, my positioning is central here. This same male colleague told me that his female colleagues, who teach identical content (sometimes alongside him), receive similar feedback about the teaching content being unscientific and implausible.

Without hiding from my hurt, I am left wondering how I move forward with my teaching. How do I inspire, encourage and communicate to my students? How do I politicise the content, without hurting myself in the process? Shall I follow the lead of some of my colleagues and simply stop reading the feedback? I am left feeling cautious and wanting to tread carefully, yet at the same time feeling defiant about being silenced by these few, clearly uncomfortable, students.

This constant evaluation of our teaching performance sits against a backdrop of a neoliberal university culture, with students simply playing their role as the consumer. So where and how do we, as critical scholars and teachers, push back against this culture?

Within the slow scholarship movement1, Mountz and colleagues call for injecting “a feminist ethics of care” which involves promoting “collective action to resist neoliberal and elitist pressures within the academy” (p. 4). How can we resist the pressures placed on us by our universities to perform, impress and please our students? How can we look after ourselves and each other in the face of constant performance appraisals?

Perhaps we can begin by redressing our silence on the political process of “our own back yard” (Gill, 2015, p. 5) – the silence around the personal and emotional impacts of teaching evaluations.

I have since reported these evaluations and they are now being considered at a higher level of the university – led by one academic who is advocating for change in this area. More recently, the National Tertiary Education Union are exploring student evaluations in Australian universities, particularly around the prevalence and seriousness of prejudicial student feedback faced by staff.

So, despite the loud cogs of the neoliberal machine called academia requiring us to do more and be more, I can hear quiet forms of resistance. Let’s turn up the volume – I want to hear your voices.

Footnote:

1 Slow scholarship is a collective form of resistance against the ever-increasing demands of the university, and marks a call to shifting the pace and cultures of our work (Mountz et al., 2015).

References

Gill, R (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in Flood, R. & Gill, R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge

Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T., & Curran, W. (2015). For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), 1235-1259. Retrieved from https://www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/1058

3 thoughts on “Hitting un-mute: let’s talk about the impact of abusive teaching evaluations

  1. Nina November 1, 2018 / 11:37 pm

    Brave and clever writing! I love it. And the comic strip is so well-matched.

    The comment about ‘because I’m a man’ matches well with the ‘ad hominem’ fallacies.

    Let’s share this far and wide- and up the academic tree!

    Well done and thanks for circulating.

  2. Teresa Donegan November 2, 2018 / 4:58 pm

    I appreciate your reflection as you are giving voice to something many of us have struggled with. I have been teaching for 30 years and take pride in my work. I believe teaching is a craft and part of that is constantly finding ways to meet students where there are and to improve on what we do so growth is continuous. Academic institutions have become consumeristic with students as “consumers”. The problem is that students believe they know what they need to learn. I teach the human sides of patient care which is often out of the comfort zone of science oriented students in health care disciplines. While teaching it, I know, students don’t often see the relevance in the immediate. It’s only when they start working in clinical settings (and with some maturity) do they see the significance of what they learned. Unfortunately you are evaluated “in the moment”.
    There is a problem with our current system. Un-tenured professors will placate students by dropping their standards until they get tenure. Make students happy and comfortable, lower standards and expectations. Who are we ultimately hurting?

  3. Dr Tracy Morison (@TracyMorison) November 3, 2018 / 6:07 am

    Thanks Britta for being brave & starting this conversation– I hope it becomes a conversation!

    At a teaching & learning circle for new academics I asked about exactly this: teaching challenging content. (By which I mean challenging their ways of thinking.) No one had any answers for me. I knew I’d have to turn to my critical peers but didn’t know how to raise the question!

    What has been useful at the T&L circle is the suggestion of teaching students how to give feedback, and indeed, what feedback is supposed to look like.

    Maybe part of this, in courses with challenging content, is to make students aware of the lenses they use to evaluate?

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